When reading about stepfamilies and issues they face, one of the most common terms you will see is loyalty bonds. Loyalty concerns are something that occur at one time or another in every blended family. The level of intensity will often depend on the circumstances of the family, the length of time since the divorce/remarriage and the level of conflict between homes.
Each of us have an inherent level of loyalty to our families. Most often our loyalties remain stronger to those in our immediate, or biological, family. Divorce and remarriages can test these bonds. This can usually be seen through children acting out towards one parent or their stepfamily. Acting out can happen through negative comments, imaginary stories, avoidance or the defensiveness towards one parent. Children can feel the need to protect one of their parents, they may feel guilty for spending time with the other or they may have feelings of sadness with the introduction of a stepparent or siblings. These feelings of guilt and sadness are normal reactions for children when large changes occur in their family.
It only begins to be a problem when a tug-of-war situation is created. When parents or stepparents refuse to honor the natural bond that a child feels, the child is placed in a position to choose one side over the other. For example, if a dad or stepmom does not allow the child to have pictures of their mom in his room, the child can feel that he is being forced to deny his mom and bond that they have. Creating an environment that forces a child to choose one home or parent over the other automatically challenges their loyalty bonds. They are forced to deny a part of themselves in order to make their parent happy.
Parents can help to reduce the occurrence of this tug-of-war situation by giving their children permission to love and enjoy the company of their other parent. It is necessary to verbally state this permission on a reoccurring basis. For example, “I’m so glad you had fun with your mom this past weekend!” or “It makes me happy that you and your stepmom are building such a good relationship”. Letting the child know that you approve of, and encourage, a happy and healthy relationship in the other home can reduce their feelings of guilt and sadness. It’s important that these statements continue without conflicting messages. If one day you happily tell your son how happy you are that he enjoys his mom’s house, but the next he overhears you complaining about her, this will teach him not trust your sincerity on the subject. It can leave him feeling confused on how he should act with his mom and uncertain whether or not you support their relationship.
Parents should also model this acceptance in front of the children during exchanges. Acting in a civil manner, not fighting in front of the kids and respecting each other’s authority will help tremendously to create a peaceful and guilt-free environment.
Stepparents help with this dynamic as well by not trying to replace the child’s other parent. While you may now be an additional parental figure in their life, you are not mom or dad. By creating your own separate role, the children will be less likely to feel the need to choose between the two of you. You must remember that the other role is not a threat to yours. For example, their dad is not a threat to your role as stepdad and their stepmom is not a threat to your role as mom. They are vastly different positions and they can peacefully co-exist.
While loyalty bonds are often discussed as a common issue in stepfamilies it’s important to understand that loyalty itself is not an issue. Loyalty to one’s family is not a cause for concern or something that should be changed. It’s only when we create an environment of competition that the children suffer and that the bonds result in conflict.